Some songwriters have no qualms about drawing from the same well, year after year, never making much progress in their careers other than being able to regularly turn out new records, but that isn’t the case with Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers. This bluegrass band keeps evolving with every passing month that they spend in each other’s company, and in For the Record, their latest studio album, they dispense their most engaging group of songs yet. The band that gave us the IBMA award-winning “If I’d Have Wrote That Song” dishes out twelve all-new studs in this LP and are making some seriously big waves in their somewhat insular scene this spring.
Let’s start off by breaking down the collaboration between Mullins and Del McCoury in this record, “The Guitar Song.” Structured as a back and forth dialogue created by duets between the vocalists as well as the banjo and guitar, “The Guitar Song” symbolically directs its melody skyward as if to say hello to the bluegrass gods of yore, and it brightens up the album’s first act with its balladic poem in a way that few other tracks could. It’s truly a meeting of two industry giants, and an exquisite choice by Mullins for lead single.
The songs “O-hio,” “Dreamers Hill,” “Things That I Like” and “Georgia Slammer” are all pretty instrumentally-focused, while other tracks like “A Folded Flag,” “Tell Me True” and “That Old Wheel” are all about the colorful personalities in their lyrics. Together they make for a perfect pairing in this full-length offering, and further exhibit Joe Mullins’ dexterity as a frontman. Duane Sparks, Jason Barie, Mike Terry and Randy Barnes hold up their end on guitar, fiddle, mandolin and upright bass, respectively, but there’s never any doubt who the man in charge is in this record.
As far as its production quality goes, For the Record is as immaculately packaged as they come, and often feels more like a live performance than it does a record made within the confines of four studio walls. Every sonic nuance within the patterned string play is amplified in the mix, and when the band is really gelling in “Things That I Like” or the more patient “I Want to Know More About My Lord,” they form a singular force to be reckoned with that I can only imagine being wholly unstoppable in a live setting. The Ramblers plan on hitting the road in support of their new album this summer, and I really hope to see them somewhere along their trip.
Joe Mullins hasn’t let critics or fans down yet, but For the Record, as far as I’m concerned, stands as his most moving contribution to American music culture under this current moniker. In each of these songs, we’re transported to a world that is both ancient and brimming with new life, soundtracked only by the bucolic sounds of bluegrass in its most potent of states. It’s a place that I plan on visiting again this April when the album gets its official release, and I would definitely encourage you to do the same.